The Hope of Marseille

By Claire Berlinski

France’s most Muslim city offers a surprising model in the war on anti-Semitism.

The commencement of the second Palestinian Intifada, in late 2000, ignited the most extensive outbreak of anti-Semitic violence in France since the Holocaust. It continues to this day. The crimes have been perpetrated almost entirely by the beur—Arab immigrants. The political alliances forged between Jewish and Arab leaders during the rise of the right-wing National Front have broken down.
Marseille, France’s second-largest and oldest city, was initially not exempt. In September 2001, the Gan Pardes school in Marseille was set alight. The words “Death to the Jews” and “Bin Laden Will Conquer” were spray-painted on the walls. Over the next year, Jewish cemeteries were defaced and swastikas painted on Jewish homes. During demonstrations in support of the Palestinians, marchers shouted, “All Arabs are Palestinians! We are all suicide bombers!”
On March 31, 2002, a series of coordinated anti-Semitic attacks took place throughout France: Masked assailants smashed cars into a Lyon synagogue and set it on fire; a shotgun was fired into a kosher butcher shop in Toulouse; arsonists attempted to burn down a synagogue in Strasbourg. A Jewish couple was assaulted in a small village along the Rhone. In Marseille, the Or Aviv Synagogue in the quiet northern neighborhood of Les Caillols was reduced to ashes by arsonists and the Tora scrolls charred.
To the bewilderment of French Jews, the Palestinian Intifada has attenuated, but the so-called French Intifada has not—except in one city. The violence in Paris, Lyon, Strasbourg, and other major French cities has continued, and in some places worsened. In these cities, anti-Semitism appears to be uncontainable. But in Marseille, the animus has fizzled out. The city reacted with revulsion to the burning of the Or Aviv Synagogue. City-wide protests against anti-Semitism were immediately organized; Arabs participated in the demonstrations. The leaders of Marseille’s Islamic community firmly condemned the attack. By contrast, after similar violence in Toulouse, Muslim community leaders offered not one single gesture of solidarity.1 
Marseille is not free of anti-Semitism, by no means; the city, after all, is the political base of the National Front, whose campaigns are driven by a furious anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic sentiment. But by comparison with the rest of France, Marseille is calm. There are no burned cars, as in Strasbourg, nor urban riots, as in Paris and Lyon. In the rest of France, the violence against Jews appears to be organized. Some Jewish leaders believe it to be centrally planned and directed, perhaps by al-Qaida cells; they note that as on March 31, 2002, similar attacks often occur in separate cities on the same day, and find improbable the claim that this is mere coincidence. In Marseille, however, what violence there is seems to be spontaneous, disorganized, and largely committed by disaffected, economically disadvantaged juveniles who spend too much time watching al-Jazeera via satellite dish.
Marseille is a city of immigrants. Fully a quarter of its population is of North African origin, and demographers predict that Marseille will be the first city on the European continent with an Islamic majority. Its Jewish community is the third-largest in Europe. The most ethnically diverse city in France, then, has paradoxically been the most successful in containing this outbreak of ethnic violence.
A few months ago, I went to Marseille to investigate this anomaly. My operating assumption was that Marseille’s calm must be attributable to particularly vigorous police work. I spoke to cab drivers and waiters, to the police chief and his deputy, to street cops and to officials at city hall. I spoke to regional historians and archivists; I spoke to right-wing and left-wing community leaders. Everyone agreed that Marseille’s calm was no accident. There is something unique about the city that protects it from cyclones of ethnic violence. I was told, and slowly became convinced, that the efficacy of the police was only one part of the story.
Few social phenomena have monocausal explanations, and of course there is more than one reason for Marseille’s comparative tranquility. But one aspect of the answer is a surprising one: It is Marseille’s approach to ethnic community politics, an approach that is unlike that of any other city in France.
This approach, in fact, challenges the core principles of the French republican ideal, and the historic concept of what it means to be French.
France’s model of immigration, the so-called republican model, rests upon the demand that immigrants become culturally, intellectually, and politically assimilated. Like assimilation by the Borg, this process is complete: Immigrants are asked to abandon their native cultures and adopt a distinct set of mental habits, values, and shared historic memories. Taken as a whole, these habits, values, and memories—not shared religion, race, or blood—are held to be the essence of France, the glue that binds French citizens together.2
The core values of France, inherited from the French Revolution, are based on the idea of individual rights: For official France, it is the citizen who is recognized, never the ethnic group to which he belongs. When the French Revolution emancipated Protestants and Jews, it emancipated them as individual citizens, not as groups defined by their religious membership. Related to the republican model is the doctrine of laïcité,a strict form of secularism that derives historically from the bitter rejection of France’s authoritarian Catholicism. By this doctrine, all reference to religion must be excluded from the public sphere. In theory at least, laïcité guarantees equality before the law for all French citizens, and militates against anti-Semitism.
The republican model of immigration has until recently allowed France successfully and completely to assimilate wave upon wave of Celtic, Germanic, Latin, and Slavic immigrants. The process is characterized by the state’s refusal legally to recognize cultural and ethnic minorities, the official denial of the very idea of cultural identity. Similar principles were applied as well in the former French colonies, often to peculiar effect: I have spoken to Cameroonians who recall opening their first history text as children and reading with bewilderment the book’s opening lines: Nos ancêtres, les gallois....
Integration in France supposes an implied contract between the immigrant and the nation. The immigrant agrees to respect the universalist values of the republic, and the republic in turn guarantees his children full integration and social standing. Finance Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, the son of a Hungarian immigrant, is an excellent case in point. In one generation, Sarkozy—who is of Jewish extraction—has come to dominate French political life. He has done so by being moreFrench, more committed to republican values, even soundingmore French, than any of his adversaries. He is widely expected to become France’s next prime minister.
The American and Anglo-Saxon models of immigration rest upon significantly different principles and traditions. Britain and the United States both emerged as federations of smaller states; and in both societies there is a looser and more pragmatic relationship between citizens and the center, a greater devolution of authority to local governance. In consequence, Britain does not merely tolerate immigrants speaking their own languages and worshipping their own gods, it encourages them. London’s Muslim Welfare House, for example, subsidized by a grant from the British government, offers Koranic study and lessons in Arabic. The United States enforces multiculturalism with affirmative action programs backed by the full weight of the law. At every level of society, Americans are exhorted to celebrate diversity.
The French government vigorously rejects this kind of cultural separatism, which it terms “communitarianism.” The word connotes the intrusion of unseemly religious or ethnic particularism into the public sphere, a refusal to be assimilated. The debate over the veil is emblematic. The French government has banned the veil in the classroom. In Britain, the issue is viewed as a matter for schools to resolve individually and independently of the government. In the United States, the Justice Department has intervened to protect the right of students to wear the veil in class.
When Arab immigrants in France insist upon sending their daughters to school in a veil—or when they torch synagogues, for that matter—the French government interprets these unwelcome events through this framework. The malefactors, they sense uneasily, are not taking a shine to republicanism.

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